Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Olney Theatre Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

The Cast of Oil
Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography
No one can say the Olney Theatre Center in suburban Maryland doesn't take chances. Its current production, Oil, is an epic that grounds the world's love affair with petroleum in the experiences of a single mother and daughter, told in the confines of the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater Lab; it's very good in places but unwieldy and not always easy to follow as a whole.

Olney is presenting the U.S. premiere of Ella Hickson's play, which premiered in London in 2016. The story ranges across time and space from 1889 to 2051, from rural England to the Middle East and back, raising—and not necessarily answering—questions about when new technology stops being a benefit to life and becomes actively dangerous, and what governments can, will, or should do in its pursuit.

Director Tracy Brigden brings extensive imagination to the production, working with Luciana Stecconi's scenic design, Daniel Brodie's projection design, Colin K. Bills' lighting design, and Kenny Neal's sound design to help the actors transcend their hemmed-in staging on a small stage with seats on three sides. She works to create a larger context for the action.

In the first act, pregnant May (Catherine Eaton) and her husband Joss (Chris Genebach) live with his relatives on the Cornwall farm owned by his mother (Claire Schoonover). May is sick of living amid constant cold and damp, so she's receptive when William Whitcomb (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) offers them a sign of hope: a lantern lit by kerosene, which he calls a gift of the earth, like air and water. Determined to make a better life for herself and her baby, May starts her journey.

As the acts pass, May and her daughter Amy (Megan Graves, stunningly effective as both child and woman) live in British-ruled Tehran, Iran, in 1908, while oil is beginning to drive geopolitical concerns; a jump ahead to Hampstead, England, in 1970, where May works for an oil company as Arab nations are beginning to seize control of their oil fields; to Baghdad in 2021, where May and adult Amy are battling for both political and personal benefit; and back to Cornwall in 2051, where declining oil supplies set up Amy and May for another possible energy miracle—assuming that the earth and humanity can deal with the catastrophic climate changes caused in part by oil use.

Graves is a wonder in the way she can play an 8-year-old girl with no condescension or cutesy mannerisms; from there she becomes a headstrong teenager with a sweetly dim boyfriend (Sam Saint Ours) and, later, an activist trying to undo what she sees as her mother's irresponsible behavior. Eaton's main quality is dogged perseverance, with minor variations as May's situation changes from desperate to complacent. Eric M. Messner is amusing as a yes man, and Christopher McLinden is convincing as two men with both power and the opportunity to abuse it.

Olney Theatre Center
February 27th - March 31st, 2019
By Ella Hickson
Joss: Chris Genebach
May: Catherine Eaton
Ma Singer: Claire Schoonover
Fanny/Fan Wong: Tuyet Thi Pham
Anne/Ana/Aminah: Sarah Corey
Samuel/Officer Samuel: Christopher McLinden
Thomas: Eric M. Messner
William Whitcomb/Mr. Farouk: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
Amy: Megan Graves
Nate: Sam Saint Ours
Directed by Tracy Brigden
Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
Olney, MD
Ticket Information: 301-924-3400 or